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The Blackout Ripper

A Terrifying Week in February, 1942

Not since 1888, when east London was terrorised by the sadistic killer known as Jack the Ripper, had a comparable spate of killings occurred. In just six days in February 1942, when London, and the whole of Britain, was living under strict blackout conditions at night, a 27-year-old RAF man named Gordon Frederick Cummins (pictured above) murdered four women and attempted to kill two others. It later transpired that he had also almost certainly killed two other women in October of the previous year. 

Gordon Cummins was born in the English county of Yorkshire on February 18, 1914 and despite his claim of being the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, he was in fact the son of John Cummins and his wife Amelia, née Lee. John Cummins's father, Harry Swithin Cummins, was, at the time of the 1861 Census, a whitesmith and master bell-hanger in Bishop Auckland, County Durham. Gordon's parents must have been reasonably well-off financially as they were able to have Gordon privately educated at Llandovery in south Wales, and he later attended the Northampton Technical School. He had few qualifications when he left school, and although he trained at an industrial chemist's firm in London, he was dismissed for "unsatisfactory performance." In 1935, he joined the ground staff of the Royal Air Force, rising, when war broke out in 1939, to become a cadet officer. He was a pathological liar. In 1936 he married Marjorie Stevens, secretary to a West End theatre producer, in the London registration district of Paddington. In 1942, Cummins volunteered for aircrew training, and he was posted to the Regents Park area, with the course to run from February 2-25.

Four of Cummins's Tragic Victims

Late on Saturday, February 8, Cummins met Evelyn Hamilton, aged 40. She was a qualified pharmacist who had just resigned from her job managing a chemist's shop and planned to go to the north of England the next day. Cummins strangled her and stole her handbag containing £80. Her body was discovered the next day in an air-raid shelter on Montague Place, Marylebone, London W1. She had not been sexually maltreated and it was a man who was on his way to work who discovered her body. Police were quickly on the scene, looking for clues. On February 10, the body of 35-year-old Evelyn Oatley, also known as Nita Ward, was discovered naked in her flat on Wardour Street. She was living as a sex worker, and after being strangled her body was mutilated and her throat cut. Fingerprints showed that the killer was left-handed, but at this time there was nothing to indicate that the two deaths were related. On February 11, at her flat on Gosfield Street, Marylebone, a 43-year-old prostitute, Margaret Florence Lowe, also known as Pearl, was strangled with a silk stocking. Her body was severely mutilated, and not discovered for three days. Bernard Spilsbury, the pathologist, said that her injuries were "quite dreadful" and her killer was "a savage sexual maniac." He said that, in his opinion, this killing and that of Evelyn Oatley were carried out by the same man. The fourth victim was younger, aged between 32 and 40 years old, and her badly mutilated body was found on February 12. Her name was Doris Jouannet, also known as Doris Robson, and she was killed in a two-room ground floor flat she shared with her husband, a local hotel manager. She used to pick up servicemen in Leicester Square. By now, the general public was really alarmed. On February 14, Cummins picked up Mrs. Greta Hayward and she went for a drink with him, but refused his advances on their way home. She escaped from him but he chased after her, catching up with her on St Alban's Street. In a shop doorway he seized her by the throat, and she lost consciousness. Thankfully, a delivery-boy who was passing investigated the sounds of a struggle, and Cummins ran off. He left behind his gas-mask which bore his serial number, rank and name. He then picked up another prostitute, Mr.s Mulcahy, in Regent Street. He gave her £5 whilst they travelled by taxi to her flat in Paddington. She later said that a "strange look came over his face" and he grabbed her by the throat. Mrs. Mulcahy had kept her boots on because of the cold, and kicked Cummins on the shins. He released her, gave her another £5, and left, this time leaving behind his belt. Cummins was arrested in his RAF billet in St. John's Wood and Greta Hayward picked him out in an identity parade. When Cummins was searched, a cigarette case belonging to Mrs. Lowe was found in his tunic pocket, and he had also stolen a fountain pen belonging to Mrs. Jouannet. One of the women Cummins tried to strangle came forward to the authorities and said, of Cummins's eyes: "They are very wide apart, a sort of light green, and they were blazing like a madman's. I was in agony."

Chief Inspector Edward Greeno, of Scotland Yard, on the Left

Cummins's fingerprints were found in two of the flats where the murders had taken place. His trial, at the Old Bailey, began on April 27, 1942, and the evidence against him was damning and conclusive. After a trial lasting one day, the jury found him guilty of the murder of Evelyn Oatley. He was sentenced to death by hanging and was executed at Wandsworth Prison on June 25, 1942, during an air-raid. 

As so often happens in the cases of terrible crimes, we get to know the names, dates, and such details, but the answers to the question Why? remain elusive. Obviously, Cummins had at some point developed a sadistic attitude towards women, and perhaps especially to commercial sex workers. Maybe he always had this tendency, and for some reason went on a killing rampage when he was free from other constraints during the weeks of his RAF training course in central London. The people of London were fortunate that his reign of terror came to an end when it did. He protested to the end his innocence, and his wife continued to visit him in jail until he was executed. Thankfully, such serial murders are rare, at least in Great Britain. Let us hope that this continues to be the case.

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